This post is part of the official Good Chinese Wife blog tour organized by Speaking of China. For more of the twenty four reviews, insights, interviews with Susan Blumberg-Kason* and the like, check out the list here.
A synopsis of sorts: When Susan, a shy Midwesterner in love with Chinese culture, started grad school in Hong Kong, she quickly fell for Cai, the man of her dreams. As they exchanged vows, Susan was sure her life was perfect…until things took a sinister turn. In her eye-opening memoir, Susan recounts her struggle to be the perfect “Chinese” wife to her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. At first, she dismisses her own values to save the marriage. But when Cai threatens to take their son, Jake, back to China for good, Susan must find the courage to stand up for herself, her son, and her future.
When first approached by Speaking of China to review Good Chinese Wife, my initial excitement soon turned to uneasiness as I began to unravel the similarities between myself and Susan Blumberg-Kason.*
We both come from Jewish backgrounds, attended Goucher College as undergraduates, moved to China after graduation, albeit for different reasons and at very different periods of China’s growth, and married Chinese men. Our ceremonies both took place in small-town China, if such exists, and as Susan poignantly discusses the reaction Hidden River had to her with Speaking of China, it’s evident that in some parts of China, customs, behaviors, and the attitudes towards 洋媳妇, yangxifu, hasn’t changed all that much:
How did people react to yangxifu back in the mid-1990s?
It was a novelty for Chinese men to have a foreign wife. In Hidden River, Cai’s hometown in Hubei province, his parents had a friend whose son had married a Japanese woman. She was a legend in that danwei—whether or not people had met her—because she was a foreigner. So my inlaws were very accepting of me and liked to brag about me with their friends. When I walked around Hidden River, people were all very polite, even when they stared and pointed at my curly hair and western nose.
However, I also noticed stark differences. I did not marry as quickly, but Cai’s charm and good looks swept Susan off her feet and she was married within months of getting to know him. ZJ and I knew each other for about two and a half years before we talked about getting married and ZJ proposed. The art of registering their marriage also differed from ZJ and I’s experience.
Regardless of your circumstances, this memoir proves to be an insatiable read; it was hard to put down and the first read-through, I spent an entire afternoon under the covers in the apartment ZJ and I lived in up until about two weeks ago in Xi’an. However, it doesn’t serve merely as a precautionary tale for AMWF relationships, but more so covers relationships where one individual is prepared to compromise to no avail and the other takes very little or no interest in doing so.
Disclaimer: The memoir proves to be one-sided in nature as we are told the story through Susan’s eyes and although, in my opinion, Susan does an impressively good job of not throwing Cai under the bus (I can’t say that if I was ever in her position that I would manage to be as forthright and neutral), I couldn’t help but feel he was certainly the antagonist.
Without giving too much away, Susan and Cai’s courtship, the nature of Cai’s questions (he asks her if she has any bad habits after proposing to her), time spent in Hidden River after they married, and their life in the US fascinated me. From my readings, I conclude cultural differences might not serve as the root of all evil in a cross-cultural marriage, but in fact it’s personality, an irreconcilable type of difference.
I’d recommend Good Chinese Wife to anyone who feels they are in a one-sided relationship, overcompensating for their partner, or merely intrigued by the synopsis. You don’t have to have an intense passion or interest for China to find something of meaning in Susan’s memoir, although it can help especially because her love for Hong Kong and Chinese culture encapsulates Good Chinese Wife from beginning to end. From having read several of the interviews she’s done, Hong Kong and Chinese culture still envelop her life, emphasizing that even when a love affair goes wrong, it doesn’t mean you sever ties with said person’s background, culture, lifestyle, customs, or traditions.
Good Chinese Wife hits shelves July 29 and is available for pre-orders on Amazon.
*Susan Blumberg-Kason is a freelance journalist in Chicago. Her work has appeared in an affiliate of the Chicago Sun Times, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, and Chicago Parent magazine. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and three children. Check out her blog.